Ramadan Cappuccino

Pamela Olson
October 15, 2007

(Pictures from around Ramallah, etc.)

I had to look up how to spell "cappuccino" since it's rendered so many different ways in Arab-land I had forgotten what the real word actually looks like. Usually on the menus here, it's some variation on "kabotsheenou," which is a transliteration into the Roman alphabet of the transliteration into the Arabic alphabet of the original word -- like a game of telephone. For the same reason, a popular brand of hair gel is called "Shainy" and women get their hair and make-up done in "Saloons".

And if you think playing Arabic script telephone with Italian and English words is funny, go to Lebanon and check out all the French-Arabic-French.

Anyway. The flight to Amman, Jordan, was long but reasonably pleasant. I met a Palestinian woman from Nablus in JFK airport and was surprised to find myself having a reasonably fluent conversation with her in Arabic. It wasn't fluent, of course. Sometimes she had to go back and break things down into simpler pieces of vocabulary until I understood, and sometimes I wanted to make a joke or a comment that I didn't have the vocab for. But we got a lot of things across with fairly minimal problems.

A family member of hers soon arrived who spoke excellent English, and he talked to the woman in rapid Arabic for a while and then turned to me and said, "Wow, she really likes you. But it doesn't take much to make a Palestinian very happy. Just to feel with what is happening to-- No, not even to feel with, just to know what is happening to us. There is so much ignorance. So, what will you be doing there?"

We chatted 'til the plane arrived, and by the time I left the airport in Amman, I was invited to the woman's house in Nablus and to a wedding in Dhahariyya (a village south of Hebron).

In Amman I stayed at my friend Fayez's temporary hotel. His old one, the famed Al Sarayya, is being demolished for an intergalactic bypass road. (Actually a new north-south Jordan rail line.) And his new one is still being built and refurbished. But the temporary place still has the same people, nearly the same atmosphere, and cool travelers to hang out with, including a Dutch girl who seemed to have lived a life parallel to mine in the things we've done in the Middle East, the drama we've dealt with, and the same likes and dislikes about Arab culture (and boys). It was lovely chatting with her in an outdoor cafe over mint tea, hummous, salad and felafel.

It was also nice to watch everyone else breaking their Ramadan fast; they sat down at tables up to an hour ahead of time looking like broken puppets. Then, as the call to prayer sounded and the food arrived, people slowly re-animated into chatting, good-natured human beings again.

I also caught up with my friend Tanya from Stanford, who's currently studying in England but was home in Amman for the holidays. It was great to see her family and their growing number of adopted cats. Plus they fed me molokhiya and chocolate cake. Mmmmmm.

On my last night in Amman, Fayez invited me to a lovely iftar (sunset breakfast) with some of his family members, and we shared delicious fried fish and maqloubeh.

I was a wreck the next day on the way to the border between Jordan and the West Bank, which is controlled by Israel. This was the bottleneck where it could all come crashing down. My fate was about to be in the hands of people who knew and cared nothing of my plans or aspirations, only of their own perceived interests and prejudices, many of which I happen to disagree with. But they could threaten me and I couldn't threaten them, so I was at their mercy. As always, and as they've done so many times to so many people, they could ruin my day, my month, my year, if they got it into their heads to choose to do so.

It reminded me of a passage I read recently in The Unbearable Lightness of Being:

Not until that point did Tomas realize that he was under interrogation. All at once he saw that his every word could put someone in danger. Although he obviously knew the name of the editor in question, he denied it: "I'm not sure."

"Now, now," said the man in a voice dripping with indignation over Tomas's insincerity, "you can't tell me he didn't introduce himself!"

It is a tragicomic fact that our proper upbringing has become an ally of the secret police. We do not know how to lie. The "Tell the truth!" imperative drummed into us by our mamas and papas functions so automatically that we feel ashamed of lying even to a secret policeman during an interrogation. It is simpler for us to argue with him or insult him (which makes no sense whatsoever) than to lie to his face (which is the only thing to do).

Anyone who thinks honesty is always the best policy, well, here's at least one clear-cut countermanding case. I hate lying, but it's a skill the Israelis have pretty much mandated that I learn. Otherwise their prejudices would be allowed to control my life.

It also helped that I had a brand new clean passport with a smiling picture of me with my hair down wearing make-up and an Ann Taylor sweater and a necklace. (I got the necklace in Syria -- I couldn't resist wearing it for the photo.) In my old passport photo, I look like a stoned Cherokee in a T-shirt. Not the type Israel considers desirable.

So there I was, all dressed up like in the photo, with a bright clean passport, surrounded by bona fide tourists with a good night's sleep behind me. Let them do their worst.

"What is the purpose of your visit in Israel?"


"Where you are going in Israel?"

"Jerusalem and Tel Aviv."

"Do you plan to go to the West Bank?"


"Do you know anyone in Israel?"

"No. By the way, would you mind stamping me on a separate sheet of paper?"


"I'm hoping to meet a friend in Turkey in about a month, and it might be cheaper to go overland through Syria."

"What you will do in Syria?"

"Nothing, just pass through."

Lies, all lies.

"OK. Let me go check and see if this is a problem."

She said it rather ominously and got up and walked out of her little booth and over to a security door. I guess this was the part where I was supposed to say, "No, no, don't talk to anyone else, I swear, I'm just a tourist! Stamp my passport if you want, I don't care. In fact, you can have it!" But I just stood there, looking bored.

She came back in short order, stamped the separate paper, and advised me to enjoy my stay in Israel.

And on the other side of the booths, they didn't even rummage through my luggage for two hours or accuse me of being involved in conspiracies to commit violent or seditious acts. None of the usual nonsense. I just went through the turnstile (where I got one last half-hearted mini-interrogation), grabbed my bags, and hopped on a sherut to Jerusalem and thence to Ramallah.

Sweet. Easiest border crossing ever. So, no more mucking about with half-truths for me. Lying -- just telling them precisely what they want to hear, and in one-word answers if possible -- is clearly the way to go.

And now, a few days later, after settling into my new house (a stone house built on a hillside near the city center) and catching up with a ton of old friends, here I am sitting in the best Italian restaurant in Ramallah -- the one overlooking the Ramallah municipal park with its fountains and trees and now its Ramadan Christmas lights -- using its free high-speed wireless internet, full as an egg on a grilled rosemary-garlic turkey and cheese sandwich, taking a break from reading a great book, working on an exciting writing project of my own choosing, and looking forward to a party in an hour and a half. And that's just this moment here -- there have been a lot of them like this already, and many more to come. I haven't been this happy in years.

And as I said before, it's not like last time. It's a new thing. Like Dante, I had to take a walk through hell -- through the spiritual and intellectual Guantanamo of the Bush Beltway -- to even appreciate what the alternative really was.

And Palestine's no paradise, obviously. (And DC's not exactly hell, either.) People's conceptions of things are very personal, and they depend on a person's history, on their goals, on their personality, and most of all, on what they focus their attention on. And for whatever vector-summation of reasons, Palestine is a very easy place for me to be right now. It's allowing me breathing space I need to be more creative and happy and useful. This was a Good Decision. I had hoped it would be.

Anyway, here's something that captured my attention a few minutes ago. It's from a book called Lila by Robert Persig, the same guy who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (which has virtually nothing to do with Zen Buddhism and even less to do with motorcycle maintenance -- but since what the book was about WAS what the book was about, I don't know, probably any title would have been a disaster; it's that kind of book).

So, on to Lila. Here's an excerpt [Comments in brackets are mine]:

A. N. Whitehead wrote that "mankind is driven forward by dim apprehensions of things too obscure for its existing language..."

[In this case he was referring to "growth" or self-actualization. What (eventually) caused humanity to reject slavery and the Holocaust even though the majority of us are neither African nor Jewish, and even though all the laws and most of the churches permitted these things at the time? What causes a bright college student to go into human rights law instead of corporate law, even though corporate law is perfectly legal and respectable and far more remunerative, and his respected elders are pushing him toward it? How do Bush's people know which words and phrases and ideals to co-opt and bastardize in order to rally people to their causes? Why do I think traffic lights and big box stores are destructive and inelegant, even though they move traffic just fine and provide me with useful measuring tape and mildly delicious Grilled Stuft Burritos? All these things seem related somehow. But how? Who can put it into words?]

One can imagine how an infant in the womb acquires awareness of simple distinctions such as pressure and sound, and then at birth acquires more complex ones of light and warmth and hunger. We know these distinctions are pressure and sound and light and warmth and hunger and so on but the baby doesn't. We could call them stimuli but the baby doesn't identify them as that. From the baby's point of view, something, he knows not what, compels attention. This generalized "something," Whitehead's "dim apprehension," is Dynamic Quality. [A term that can best be defined at this point by its context in the previous sentence.] When he is a few months old the baby studies his hand or a rattle, not knowing it is a hand or a rattle, with the same sense of wonder and mystery and excitement created by the music and heart attack in the previous examples. [Of someone hearing a song for the first time that touches him deeply, or a boring, unhappy man who has a heart attack, recovers, and rediscovers the precious mystery of life.]

If the baby ignores this force of Dynamic Quality it can be speculated that he will become mentally retarded, but if he is normally attentive to Dynamic Quality he will soon begin to notice differences and then correlations between the differences and then repetitive patterns of the correlations. But it is not until the baby is several months old that he will begin to really understand enough about that enormously complex correlation of sensations and boundaries and desires called an 'object' to be able to reach for one. This object will not be a primary experience. It will be a complex pattern of static values derived from primary experience.

Once the baby has made a complex pattern of values called an object and found this pattern to work well he quickly develops a skill and speed at jumping through the chain of deductions that produced it, as though it were a single jump. This is similar to the way one drives a car. The first time there is a very slow trian-and-error process of seeing what causes what. But in a very short time it becomes so swift one doesn't even think about it. The same is true of objects. One uses these complex patterns the same way one shifts a car, without thinking about them. Only when the shift doesn't work or an "object" turns out to be an illusion is once forced to become aware of the deductive process. This is why we think of subjects and objects as primary. We can't remember that period of our lives when they were anything else.

So, this was exciting. All the impulses I've been following since I was a kid, the ones that seemed to come from nowhere at all, that I always wondered where they came from -- this description sounded both compelling and congruent with my experiences. Like all words, and like all science, it's just a more accurate and elegant description of something, neither the thing itself nor an explanation of it. (I.e., you don't explain gravity by saying it attracts masses to each other based on an inverse square law. That's just a description of the effect we observe that it has in all cases we've studied so far. What is gravity? Nobody knows. We just know our experience with a concept to which we've attached that label after the fact of our experience with it.)

And of course, the distinction between inspiration and insanity -- between a favorable mutation and a deadly cancer -- can be nearly impossible to make until long after the fact. Who's qualified to make the distinction when the outcome still isn't clear? Who am I to follow an outlandish impulse that may threaten aspects of the system I find myself in, the one that has allowed me a fairly comfortable existence so far?

And why is Britney Spears's latest ironic-but-not-in-a-funny-way drivel currently playing on the otherwise usually excellent RamFM radio station? Can't the girl just retire quietly with her millions of dollars and her two healthy kids? What is it she wants more of, when she seems to have everything? And can't even ex-pats in Palestine be reasonable enough to keep out this highly unpleasant addiction to low-quality triviality as much as possible?

I'm actually worried that once Palestine becomes free, it will be Starbucksed into oblivion and lose a lot of what I love about it. Obviously, this is no reason to oppose its being freed. People should be allowed to choose what they want, even if they may not know any better than we do not to line their streets and airwaves with the spiritual equivalent of carcinogens. But it's troubling to someone who loves this place for its unique family-owned businesses and hand-picked food and generous people with time on their hands. Because I know the likely alternative. Surely there's some middle ground.

But anyway. So these "dim apprehensions" that people feel, that drive us slowly forward, that increasingly isolate bigots and advance freedom and create environmental movements -- these things that seem to transcend our culture and our immediate incentive structures of reward and punishment, often without any explanation that's rational within the logical constructions we find ourselves living in -- these are like pressure and sound in the womb, dim perceptions that we can't begin to explain but that, if we pay attention to and explore them, bring us closer and closer to our maximum human potential (as we conceive of it -- which I recognize is a circular statement, but it seems there's no escaping a lot of these, given our current limitations -- all our perceptions come from our own deeply biased brains, after all).

So we're all like babies, groping around in the dark. And these dim impulses we feel -- where do they come from? From evolution? From the mandations of subatomic interactions? From God? (And God, by the way, is usually defined, also rather circularly, as the very thing that gives us these impulses, even though we have no idea of God's nature, only of our gratitude for our ability to have transcendent experiences, and of a handful of books that were written at least in part based on these impulses.)

But can we really trust them, when we have no idea where they come from? It seems like when we do trust them, we get good results. (Even though some of us get burned at the stake if our peers aren't ready for us yet.) Just like babies get good results if they learn to cry when they're hungry, even though they have no idea why -- they don't even have a concept called 'why'.

But we have such a dim perception of what a "good result" is, too. What do we mean by "good results"? More happiness? More beauty? More elegance? And if so, do we have good definitions for these concepts? Aren't they subjective? And Science tells us that things that are subjective are useless and/or meaningless precisely because they can't be pinned down as objects and incorporated into Science.

But isn't that kind of circular, too?

So yeah. Babies in the dark. It's an exciting conception of where we're at -- of how much we still have to learn and grow. And maybe some day our species will be able to reach for moral decisions with the same ease with which we're currently able to reach for a glass of juice.

Mmmmm, somebody just bought me a Taybeh -- Palestine's delicious golden beer. I can definitely say that that was a good result of me doing work in a cafe and being friendly. So we've got that sorted out. Just a few billion more galaxies to go.

All right, so we've covered cappuccino, on to Ramadan. How I loathe Ramadan! Sorry to all my Muslim friends, but I'm not Muslim, and I really like tea in the morning and lunch around noon. Of course I can eat and drink whatever and whenever I want (even in public if I really want to, though it wouldn't be very polite), but... I'm lazy, and sociable. I like to grab a cheap, fresh felafel for lunch (instead of the equally cheap but infinitely worse Ramen noodles and tuna) and be able to eat with whomever I choose at any given time.

This is my fourth Ramadan in Palestine. During my first, I was in the village of Jayyous, and I fasted with everyone else and ate delicious home-cooked iftars every single night. I couldn't even handle all the invitations to iftars. I think I actually gained weight. It was nice. I enjoyed the spirit and the practice of it.

But my next three Ramadans were in Ramallah, where I hung out with ex-pats and Palestinians from all over the place, most of whom didn't have family in Ramallah. So the iftars were fewer and farther between, and often in restaurants, where it's kinda the same meal every time, not half as good as home-cooked, and not free. Plus no one in my office was fasting, so I felt like an idiot fasting and doing the whole thing properly -- who was I to fast when my secular Palestinian colleagues were over it? I ended up doing it kind of half-assed, which was no fun at all.

By my third and fourth Ramadans, I was over it completely. Now it's just annoying. More and more folks in Ramallah tend to agree.

While everyone else eats their iftars at 5:30, if I don't happen to be invited to one, I (and many of my Palestinian friends who are either Christian, secular, or far from their home towns elsewhere in Palestine) feel like how a Jewish person must feel at Christmas. And even if I'm invited to one, and I didn't fast, the experience is completely different for me than it is for everyone else. Everyone else is breaking a fast while I'm just eating a normal meal. And when I do fast for just one or two days at a time, my body has no time to get used to it and I just feel dehydrated and icky and slow.

Plus the schedule of everything gets screwed up, including buses to Jerusalem, and you can't just go grab an Italian chicken sub at Osama's Pizza for lunch if you want to. A day or three days or a week of this kind of holiday would be one thing. But a month!

Luckily the feast started this weekend, so things will be back to normal next week. Hallelujah.

Meanwhile, even with the jet lag and the Ramadan, things have been good. Catching up so many great people, and I've been meeting lots of great new people, too.

A Palestinian friend asked me a strange question, though. He asked me if it hurt my feelings when people judged me harshly just based on the fact that I was an American. The answer that came to mind immediately was, "No," but I wasn't sure why. Then I realized it was simply because no one had ever done that to me before. People have asked me if I supported Bush, but no one has ever assumed it and judged me pre-emptively. Certainly no Palestinians that I know of. Because they (a) know the difference between people and their governments (particularly when those governments are unelected -- Arabs know a thing or two about unelected governments) and (b) figure that if I'm walking around Ramallah without an armored convoy around me, I'm probably neither ignorant nor a hater.

He said, "Because it hurt my feelings a lot when people did that to me in America." He studied at university in the American South. "People would assume so many things about me."

You can imagine the things Southerners assumed about a Palestinian -- and since this particular Palestinian is a vegetarian atheist, you can imagine his confusion when they did. He never watched enough CNN or Fox News to understand what a fundamentally violent, unreasonable, backwards, hate-filled person he is, after all.

And sadly, many Americans (a) can't figure out the difference between Arab governments/extremists and ordinary people, and also (b) lack the deductive skills to grasp that if an Arab is sitting in front of them drinking a beer and being friendly with the Americans around him, he probably is neither ignorant nor a hater. In fact, it takes an ignorant hater to assume such a thing.

So all these assumptions about him came as an enormous shock.

Anyway, in addition to the writing and the olive harvesting and the wedding and the parties, I've been presented with several job and volunteering opportunities. So, lots to look forward to.

As always, you're all welcome to visit me here any time if you can. Hope you're all well, and Kul 3aam wa intum bikhair! (May every year bring you blessings!)


"It is difficult to imagine how dull the world would be if our ancestors had used free time simply for passive entertainment, instead of finding in it an opportunity to explore beauty and knowledge."

    ~ Csikszentmihalyi, Finding Flow

Next: Olives and Movie Stars

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